Fact vs. fiction surrounding The Help

Posted on May 9, 2011

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Unsubstantiated fictional tale #1:

“The book is based on the author’s personal experience in the 60s.”

Fact:

Kathryn Stockett was born in 1969. Therefore, she has no “personal experience” regarding the 1960s. What is true is that Stockett was cared for and had mutual affection for a maid named Demetrie, until Demetrie’s death in the mid 1980s when Stockett was about sixteen.  Stockett admits this in the acknowledgments section “”Too Little, Too Late”   and several interviews.

Stockett on CBS, a photo of Demetrie is in the background

And Stockett has admitted real life events that were mentioned to her by others made their way into the novel. Not only real life events, but the author also used observations of individuals close to her, those who may or may not have given their permission to do so:

This information is from the Atlanta Journal Constitution (items in bold are my doing):

”In past interviews with the AJC, Stockett has said she wrote “The Help” as part of a writing club. She used names of people she knew simply because they were handy, she said.

“When I was writing this book, I never thought anyone else would read it, so I didn’t get real creative with the names,” Stockett told us in 2009. “I just used people I knew. Some of them aren’t talking to me right now, but I feel like they’ll come around.”

She has repeatedly called the book, which has been adapted into a film, a work of fiction.

“I wrote it purely for me and finally had the guts to show it to my mother and my writing group, ” Stockett told us in the 2009 interview. “I was terrified when I realized it was going to be published.”

Link: http://blogs.ajc.com/the-buzz/2011/02/18/kathryn-stockett-author-of-the-help-sued/

 

 

Interview by the Publisher – Penguin Group

Excerpt:

Minny was the easiest to write because she’s based on my friend Octavia. I didn’t know Octavia very well at the time I was writing, but I’d watched her mannerisms and listened to her stories at parties. She’s an actress inLos Angeles, and you can just imagine the look on her face when some skinny white girl came up and said to her, “I’ve written a book and you’re one of the main characters.” She kind of chuckled and said, “Well, good for you.”

http://us.penguingroup.com/static/rguides/us/help.html

Back in 2009, here’s the greeting Stockett gave on the Barnes and Noble site:

“. . . I usually have my mind on a story– either mine or someone else’s– where the tomatoes are riper, the itches are itchier, the sun burns hotter than in regular life. ”

Link: http://bookclubs.barnesandnoble.com/t5/New-Reads/HELLO-FROM-KATHRYN-STOCKETT-AUTHOR-OF-THE-HELP/td-p/335699

 

 

“Grandaddy told me the story of Cat-bite, who is in the book.  He was driving along and saw a young black girl being attacked by a cat- just a regular old house feline- that had rabies and wouldn’t turn this poor little girl loose.  Grandaddy saved her and took her to the hospital for the rabies shots- in the stomach, for 21 days.  It was many years later that she tracked Grandaddy down and thanked him again, for what he’d done.

Grandaddy also gave me a great sense of what people felt and thought during the early 1960′s.  There was a feeling thatMississippiwas the world.  You were more interested in the local farm report than what the President was doing inWashington.  The most important events to you were happening right there in your neighborhood.  I like that idea and tried to employ that state of mind in The Help.”

Link: http://bookclubs.barnesandnoble.com/t5/New-Reads/HELLO-FROM-KATHRYN-STOCKETT-AUTHOR-OF-THE-HELP/td-p/335699

 

 

So far Stockett has admitted to using the real life events or actual people as inspiration for her character creations:

Stockett’s grandfather, the maid Demetrie and the actress Octavia Spencer are three that have been publicly identified. There’s also the matter of the lawsuit against the author by a maid named Ablene Cooper, who believes the character of Aibileen was based on her, and not Demetrie. Ablene Cooper has a gold tooth and a deceased son, much like Aibileen Clark in the novel. But Stockett still insists that Aibileen was based on Demetrie.

While Stockett has been open about basing Aibileen on Demetrie, the author hasn’t commented on whether Leroy is based on Demetrie’s abusive husband Clyde/Plunk. But Aibileen’s “no-account” husband is named Clyde. And Leroy, Minny’s husband is frequently drunk and abusive.

 

Take a look at how Stockett decribes Clyde/Plunk and decide for yourself:

Demetrie was stout and dark-skinned and, by then, married to a mean, abusive drinker named Clyde. She wouldn’t answer me when I asked questions about him. But besides the subject of Clyde, she’d talk to us all day. (Too little, too late Pg 447)

Now recall the page  where Skeeter asks Minny about Leroy, and Minny refuses to discuss her husband, telling Skeeter to back off.

What’s also interesting is how Stockett omitted information on the Citizen’s Council of Jackson, formerly known as the White Citizen’s Council of Jackson and one of the main opponents of integration. But doing that may have forced to author to look where she didn’t want to go, and that was to face how segregation was neither “funny” or “entertaining” for those subjected to it.

Unsubstantiated fictional tale #2:

“The audio version is so much better, all the characters speak with a southern accent, so there’s really no need to complain.”

There’s plenty to be offended and insulted by in The Help. Because a major problem with the book isn’t just how the black characters speak, but what they say, and far too many scenes in the novel simply validate the bigotry of the times. That Stockett chose to have the black characters voice their displeasure with black males  and one has a major issue with her own skin color, as well as royally dissing their loved ones and their community doesn’t make the offense any less.

And here’s the kicker, somehow Stockett believes she’s created “admirable” characters. I. Don’t. Think. So.

 

No white female in the novel makes this fairly all encompassing statement about white males:

Plenty of black men leave their families behind like trash in a dump, but it’s not something the colored woman do. We’ve got kids to think about – Minny Jackson (Pg 311)

 

Frankly, I think Stockett and her publisher owe the black community an apology for that  intrusive omnipresent narrator (Stockett herself) swooping in to make sociological assessments on what she perceives is wrong with the black community. It’s especially telling when comparing what the black characters say versus the white characters, where there’s a marked difference and it’s not just a dialect or class difference.

None of the white characters compare their skin color to any insect, yet Stockett has Aibileen doing a highly degrading color swatch test with a roach to decide who’s the blackest. The roach wins by the way.

And I couldn’t find the section in the novel where the white characters talk about their vagina’s as “cootchies” or any other pet name as Stockett has Aibileen and Minny doing. No, there’s no “cootchie spoilt as a rotten oyster” for these delicate southern belles. As the novel continues, it’s also clear Stockett has fallen into the trap of thinking that somehow slipping into the frame of mind of a black woman means you can act a fool and everyone just loves it. Living vicariously through her black characters, Stockett actually admitted this in an interview:

Oprah Radio host Nate Berkus (no transcript available)

Excerpt:

“Yes absolutely. And you learned, I think as an African American in Mississippi to be very careful with your words and then one of my favorite scenes from the book is when all the maids were on the bus and they get to talk about all their white employers and they get to make fun of them as openly as they can.”

http://www.oprah.com/oprahradio/Author-Kathryn-Stockett-Audio

 

 

Now, just why would a black bus rider in still segregated Mississippi be stupid enough to act up on a bus where they still had to sit in the back (had Stockett done her research, she would have realized that). All Jackson bus drivers were still white, and Freedom Riders were pouring into the city not only to work for voting rights, but to integrate bus terminals, buses and public eating establishments. Jackson, Mississippi in the early 60s still behaved as if the Federal Law against segregation on interstate travel still existed.

Back of the Bus – See anybody laughing?

Stockett’s quote refers to the scene  where the reader is introduced to the “sassy” maid Minny:

I spot Minny in the back seat. Minny short and big, got shiny black curls. She setting with her legs splayed, her thick arms crossed. She seventeen years younger than I am. Minny could probably lift this bus up over her head if she wanted to. Old lady like me’s lucky to have her as a friend.

I take the seat in front of her, turn around and listen. Everbody like to listen to Minny.

” . . . so I said, Miss Walters, the world don’t want to see your naked white behind any more than they want to see my black one. Now, get in this house and put your underpants and some clothes on.”

“On the front porch? Naked?” Kiki Brown ask.

“Her behind hanging to her knees.”

The bus is laughing and chuckling and shaking they heads.

“Law, that woman crazy,” Kiki say. “I don’t know how you always seem to get the crazy ones, Minny.”

“Oh, like your Miss Paterson ain’t?” Minny say to Kiki. “Shoot, she call the roll a the crazy club.”  The whole bus be laughing now cause Minny don’t like nobody talking bad about her white lady except herself. That’s her job and she own the rights. (Aibileen describing Minny, Pg 13)

Sigh . . . what I got from this scene is a big woman with her legs wide open on a public bus, loud talking.  Only considering the times, Minny would have been either arrested, put off the bus or worse. Taken away for a beat down by police.

A bit further on, Stockett feels so comfortable pretending to be a black female, she concocts an imaginary conversation where Aibileen and Minny talk about cootchies, or one cootchie in particular.  Minny mentions that the woman Aibileen’s estranged spouse Clyde has run off with named Cocoa, contracted a venereal disease a week after their departure (apparently from Clyde).

Just as some bigoted whites used the slur of blacks having “diseases” and being “immoral” as an excuse to block integation and equality, Stockett creates the character of Cocoa, and has the obsurd Cocoa, Cootchie, Clyde “spoilt cootchie” scene on pages 23 and 24, where Aibilene doesn’t realize she too might have contracted a venereal disease, and that most Christians devoted to God would be highly offended if someone thought they’re somehow gained the power through prayer to call down a plague on another individual. Besides that, Stockett has Aibileen invoking one of the stupidest lines in the novel “You saying people think I got the black magic?”

Thereby cementing the author’s misguided attempt to provide humor by showing that she too believes blacks and voodoo or “black magic” must go hand in hand. So when Stockett talks about putting “different” voices on the page, she’s not just refering to having the white characters speak as if they’re from the North and the black characters still on a plantation from the Civil War. Because from the whole “spoilt cootchie” to “no-account” males, to women with skin the color of “asphalt” or “black as night”, or so black Skeeter “can’t tell them apart”, Stockett makes it quite clear that African Americans are quite different in her eyes than whites, in every way possible.

Unsubstantiated fictional tale #3:

“Have you read the book? Read the book, you’ll love it”

I mean, WTF? Listen, when someone comes on a message board and expresses their dislike for the novel, I have no idea why some posters who have read the book assume some people AKA black readers haven’t. What’s even whackier, is when some of these same readers who love the novel are challenged, they then use the excuse “Oh, I don’t know about that part.” or “I don’t remember that part so I can’t comment on it” or some  other weak excuse like “It was the message in the book that’s the point.”

And what message would that be?

That black women who talk trash about their own culture make the best Mammies, expecially if they abstain from sex and are ready at the drop of a hat to grovel? Or that now’s the perfect time to reminisce about the good ol’ days when blacks were forced to do what they were told. Or how about in a mere two years, a woman can get over the shock of  losing her only child (Aibileen). There are countless movies where the plot revolves around how hard it is to get over the death of a child, yet Skeeter mourns over Constantine more than Aibileen does for her son. There are no scenes where Aibileen cries tears over Treelore, but she sure does turn on the waterworks in happiness over Skeeter at the book’s end. If Stockett had ever lost a child, she’d know that this premise of stunted grief and the ability to just grab another child (Mae Mobley) to smother love on is absurd and highly insensitive, especially since Aibileen doesn’t  initiate any affection towards Minny’s children. And it’s just another way the book makes it appear as though how African Americans feel or deal with life is totally the opposite of how whites do. We grieve. We cry. We mourn for years, and there is no tidy “closure”. We create foundations and charities in our child’s name, just like everyone else, because we’re HUMAN.

Or how about this message, that anyone who dares to offer an opposing viewpoint on this novel is “uppity” or has “attitude”. Well hell,  I’ll be your Huckleberry.

Unsubstantiated fictional tale #4:

“Skeeter’s not the “white savior” of the novel. The maids are admirable and do contribute to their novel”

I beg to differ. Skeeter was indeed set up by the author to be the “savior” but I have no problem agreeing to disagree on this.

In theory, having a young white woman lead a fictional rights revolution by recording the stories of several black maids is so heartwarming, it should have worked.

Until you realize that Skeeter never reveals whether she believes blacks and whites are equal, or even that segregation is wrong.

Skeeter appears to be an eager opportunist as well as a bit detached from what was happening in her own city. And this is after the woman graduated from Ole Miss with a degree in journalism. Yet here’s what she says about national, breaking news on James Meredith:

The picture pans back and forth and there is my old administration building. Governor Ross Barnett stands with his arms crossed, looking at the tall Negro (James Meredith) in the eye. Next to the governor is our Senator Whitworth, whose son Hilly’s been trying to set me up with on a blind date.

I watch the television, riveted. Yet I am neither thrilled nor disappointed by the news they might let a colored man into Ole Miss, just surprised.  (Skeeter, Pg 83)

The nation was on edge regarding the events in Mississippi. In the end, Two people died (including a French reporter) and whites rioted on campus, causing President Kennedy to send in the National Guard (they were already there protecting James Meredith). Yet does Skeeter note this, or rather Stockett include the riot and its aftermath in the book? Nope. Just like there’s no mention of SNCC, CORE or information on other civil rights organizations, or college aged students from all over the country flooding into Jackson. See, Skeeter didn’t have to go it alone. But perhaps these other events transpiring in Jackson and agencies fighting for true equality would have detracted from holding Skeeter up as a rogue “savior”, even though Skeeter sneaks about in the dark of night and never really puts herself in danger. Oh, it’s implied in the novel, but Stockett admits in her video interview with Katie Couric of CBS that she’d never let any harm come to her “characters”.

Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZjIowZrH4iM

 

 

But when real rights activists, like nineteen year old Joan Trumpaer Mulholland enroll in all black Tougaloo college (the same one Yule May Crookle wanted to send her twins to) and takes part in staging a sit in at Woolworths, or winds up getting a cavity search (including insertion of her vagina) while imprisoned, Skeeter’s antics come up woefully short.

Civil Rights Activist Joan Trumpauer

Here’s another excerpt on Skeeter’s de-sensitized nature. The sentence in bold is my doing:

I search through card catalogues and scan the shelves, but find nothing about domestic workers. In nonfiction, I spot a single copy of  Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. I grab it, excited to deliver it to Aibileen, but when I open it, I see the middle seciton has been ripped out. Inside, someone has written NIGGER BOOK in purple crayon. I am not as disturbed by the words as by the fact that the handwriting looks like a third grader’s. I glance arond, push the book in my satchel. It seems better than putting it back on the shelf.  (Pg 172)

What Skeeter’s good at though, is delegating work and getting information that she needs out of the black help, especially Saint Aibileen.

No, Skeeter doesn’t do much of anything except type and bitch and moan about her mother, Constantine, and what’s taking Aibileen so long to get all the maids together. But I guess that’s okay, since the book is really about Skeeter,  and not the maids.

Unsubstantiated fictional tale #5:

The lynching of  Carl Roberts

I still haven’t found concrete  information that this person even existed.

There’s no Carl Roberts in any recorded archive of those lynched in Mississippi. And I haven’t found a Life magazine article similar to the one mentioned by Carlton Phelan and Senator Stoolie Whitworth on page 267:

The Senator leans back in his chair. “Did you see that piece they did in Life magazine? One before Medgar Evers, about what’s is- name- Carl Roberts?”

I look up, surprised to find the Senator is aiming his question at me. I blink, confused, hoping it’s because of my job at the newspaper. “It was . . .he was lynched. For saying the governor was . . .” I stop, not because I’ve forgotten the words. but because I remember them.

Pathetic,” The Senator says, now turning to my father. “With the morals of a streetwalker.”

I exhale, relieved the attention is off me. I look at Stuart to gauge his reaction to this. I’ve never asked him his position on civil rights. But I don’t think he’s even listening to the conversation. The anger around his mouth has turned flat and cold. (Skeeter, Pg 267)

I’m not saying it never happened though. I just haven’t found information that would lend credence to this section of the novel. I do notice when individuals come on this site, many wind up here searching for info on the Carl Roberts story in the book.

Life Magazine, June 1963. Note the items circled in red.

Life Magazine, June 1963. Note the items circled in red. You can find more old Life magazines at this site: http://www.oldlife.net  

 

 

Link: http://www.oldlife.net/index.php

 

On page 239 of the hard cover text, Skeeter says:

In a rare breeze, my copy of Life magazine flutters. Audrey Hepburn smiles on the cover, no sweat beading on her upper lip. I pick it up and finger the wrinkled pages, flip to the story on the Soviet Space Girl. I already know what’s on the next page. Behind her face is a picture of Carl Roberts, a colored schoolteacher from Pelahatchie, forty miles from here. “In April, Carl Roberts told Washington reporters what it means to be a black man in Mississippi, calling the governor ‘a pathetic man with the morals of a streetwalker.’ Roberts was found cattle-branded and hung from a pecan tree.”

They’d killed Carl Roberts for speaking out, for talking. I think about how it would be, three months ago, to get a dozen maids to talk to me. Like they’d just been waiting all this time, to spill their stories to a white woman. How stupid I’d been.” (Pg 239, Skeeter)

 

In the screen grab above, please note what I’ve circled in red. There’s an article in the real Life magazine about the blonde Soviet woman in space. The next article covers Medgar Evers funeral. If Carl Roberts is fictional, I don’t know why Stockett’s editors would have her make up a character when Evers real death was right there in the same magazine.

 

So far there’s nothing on Carl Roberts, but something may turn up. Perhaps the name was changed, or the definition shouldn’t be “lynching” regarding the supposed death. If someone has more information, please share by leaving a comment.

Unsubstantiated fictional tale #6:

It’s important to note that Stockett has gone on record stating the real life maid of her grandparents inspired not just Aibileen, but most of the maids in the novel. Below is an actual photo of Demterie. Now, read what the author says about her:

Photo of Demetrie, Stockett’s grandparents maid.

“Demetrie was stout and dark-skinned and, by then married to a mean, abusive drinker named Clyde. She wouldn’t answer me when I asked about him. But besides the subject of Clyde, she’s talk to us all day.”  Kathryn Stockett in her own words, Too Little Too Late, Pg 447 of the novel

Demetrie was not a dark skinned woman. At least not the way Stockett described most of the maids in the novel. Because the often repeated word she uses is “Black”, as in “Black like asphalt”, “Black as night”, “blacker by ten shades”.

That night after supper, me and that cockroach stare each other down across the kitchen floor. He big, inch, inch an a half. He black. Blacker than me. Aibileen’s  battle of wills with a cockroach (Pg 189)

While visiting Constantine, this character talks about playing with two little girls  who were “so black I couldn’t tell them apart and called them both just Mary.” (Pg 62) – Skeeter

I clear my throat, produce a nervous smile. Minny doesn’t smile back. She is fat and short and strong. Her skin is blacker than Aibileen’s by ten shades, and shiny and taut, like a pair of new patent shoes. –  Skeeter’s first impression of Minny (Pg 164)

The women are tall, short, black like asphalt or caramel brown. If your skin is too white, I’m told,  you’ll never get hired The blacker the better. – (Pg 257) Skeeter

Demetrie wasn’t the only non “Black as night” African American hired as a domestic. One of the most famous is Lillian Rodgers Parks, who wrote of her experience as a seamstress and a maid in her many years of service ( 1929-1960) at the White House:

Lillian Rodgers Parks, seamstress and maid for the white house.

     

   

Lillian Rodgers Parks worked as a maid and seamtress at the white house from 1929 – 1960

 

Lillian’s story was a popular made for TV miniseries during the late 70s. The series is out on DVD and its worth purchasing. More about Backstairs at the White House, starring Leslie Uggams, Olivia Cole, Leslie Nielson, Paul Winfield, Robert Hooks, Cloris Leachman, Robert Vaughn, Lou Gossett Jr., and a host of other stars both black and white can be found here.

Stockett’s grandparents maid Demetrie had more than a “friendly softness” in the middle. While I lack a photo of Ablene Cooper, the woman who filed suit (reportedly with the help of Stockett’s brother) against Kathryn Stockett, it’s already been verified that Cooper has an adult deceased son, a gold tooth, and if she’s darker than Demetrie her allegation that Stockett mis-appropriated her likeness might have some merit.

**Update**

Here’s a picture of Abilene Cooper. And no matter how much Stockett protests, here’s where the author got her description of Aibileen Clark:

Ablene Cooper’s photo from the UK Daily Mail

One thing for certain, here’s what was manufactured and popular during segregation to represent black domestics. Compare the skin color and girth to Stockett’s descriptions and these may possibly be where the author got her “inspiration” on skin tone and image.

Mammy lamp. Not sold on HSN, but popular during segregation. Image from Ferris State Museum of Jim Crow Memorabilia

          

And so, without anyone checking to see if what Stockett claimed was true, we have the scene in the movie where all the “blacker the better” maids are in the same room. Which poses another problem. Because in the novel Stockett segregated the characters with more white characteristics like Lulabelle, Yule May and Gretchen. All three of them speak like the white characters in the book, two are described as “trim” (Gretchen and Yule May) and all possess a fiery belligerence that Aibileen, Minny and Constantine, Stockett’s Mammy-fied trio sorely needed. The picture below is fiction of the worst kind.

Unsubstantiated fictional tale #7:

“Black people are just mad because a white woman wrote this novel.”

This retort appears to be a popular one whenever love isn’t expressed for Kathyrn Stockett’s book.

Yes, what other reason could it be that an African American could  have a negative opinion besides   the racially hot excuse that “a white woman wrote this book ” thus that’s why some object to it.

For the record, most published novels are by WHITE men and women in America. That’s nothing new. And African Americans are quite used to laying down dollars even when a minority isn’t part of the cast.

Kathryn Stockett wrote a book that turned out to be a bestseller. But so did Sarah Palin. That doesn’t mean either novel is a literary masterpiece and doesn’t have failings. Some loved both books, some didn’t. Some will love The Help, and others won’t.

Why an African American ends up not enamored with the book, and in some cases also the film is important not only to other African Americans, but it should also be to whites who may wonder why either one isn’t uniformly “beloved.”

Same can be said for other works created by whites portraying the black culture. The Jazz Singer, Birth of Nation and other movies had stereotypical scenes and dialogue with cork painted, black faced white actors.

Many Americans loved those films too, and didn’t think anything was wrong. African American critics and some sympathetic whites had to point out why the movies were offensive and not well received by the black community.

Next came real African Americans playing stereotypical roles, from Stepin Fetchit to Eat n’ Sleep to even Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel. They had to act and speak dialogue that was demeaning, yet audiences howled with laughter. Stepin Fetchit even became a millionaire for his antics.

The Help is simply a return to the past, with black actors playing the same roles Hollywood once strictly relegated African Americans to previously. And guess what? White writers wrote the scripts back then too. Seems everything old is new again.

Unsubstantiated fictional tale #8:

“Whites were instrumental in helping black Americans gain equality. If it wasn’t for the intervention of white people, there would have been no civil rights movement.”

I actually got into a debate with a poster on another site who insisted that African Americans who didn’t enjoy The Help were just mad because of  white contribution to the rights movement.

All I can say is this, yes there were casualities from both races in the fight for civil rights. But the freedom movement lasted for over one hundred years, not just in the 60s. During that time African Americans, overwhelmingly those male in sex were murdered because of their rights activities. And on this site, I do highlight individuals both black and white who gave their lives for equality. One unsung hero is William Moore.

Book on William Moore

Per Jerry Mitchell, a well known journalist who writes and documents the Civil Rights Movement:

“In the spring of 1963, William Moore of Baltimore, a white postal worker, decided to walk from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Jackson, Miss., to deliver a letter to Gov. Ross Barnett, urging him to break down the walls of segregation in Mississippi. . .

During his one-march man, Moore wore a sandwich board that read, “Equal Rights For All. Mississippi Or Bust.”

Along the way, he encountered plenty of hate. Some people threw rocks at him and yelled “n—– lover.”

On the night of April 28, 1963, while resting on his journey in Attalla, Ala., he was shot twice at close range. Kennedy called his killing ‘an ‘outrageous crime. ‘ ”

http://blogs.clarionledger.com/jmitchell/2010/02/08/postman-william-moore-among-the-many-slain-during-the-civil-rights-movement/

 

 

 

I’ll repeat again, African American males were the main target of those bigots who followed segregation to the letter. And they used many ways to inflame the animosity of others. Lies were spread about the black lifestyle, from blacks being immoral and carrying venereal diseases to the myth that black males only sought to rape white females, no matter what the age.

Advertisements contributed to portraying blacks both female and male as grinning, slow witted and grammar demolishing individuals who were born to serve whites, because we thought not to be “civilized” or as smart.

Example of how the black male was used in advertising during segregation

There were bogus studies used to justify the “difference” in the black and white race. We were considered better athletes and our physique bred for physical and menial jobs, but not qualified simply because of our skin color to be scientists, doctors, politicians, teachers, lawyers . . . in short, any profession that required the use of the mind over muscle.And in The Help, Kathryn Stockett unwittingly continues this propaganda.

Unsubstantiated fictional tale #9

“The Help isn’t a history book. It’s fiction.”

Agreed.

But using this excuse, and in this particular case, has become yet another means to give Stockett a pass for errors in the novel when another author would be called to task. Say for example an author wrote a book about 9/11 and claimed only one plane was involved. Since the tragedy of 9/11 is still so fresh, there would probably be an outcry on this inaccuracy, though the book is fiction.

The problem with The Help is that some of the history Stockett inserts in the novel is either plagued by errors elsewhere in the book or skewed in favor of the white characters.

By inserting real life events from the south during the 60s and framing characters around them, Stockett’s novel is fiction based on some actual facts. And those an author cannot change and dare not change. One glarring example is the death of Medgar Evers in the novel.

Sloppy research and editing left in the Medgar Evers error in the hard cover version of the book, which is especially embarrassing for an author playing up the fact that she’s from Jackson, Mississippi.

In a screenshot I’ve included of the book, Skeeter states “They are scared, looking at the back door every ten minutes, afraid they’ll get caught talking to me. Afraid they’ll be beaten like Louvenia’s grandson, or, hell, bludgeoned in their front yard like Medgar Evers.”

Medgar Evers was never “bludgeoned.” He was shot, and the book makes mention of his shooting in a moving scene with Aibileen and Minny facing the shock of his assassination. Evers was also a civil rights icon and has a statue erected in his honor in Mississippi. While its bad enough that the error was left in, when Stockett did her book tour in 2009, she repeated the line that “Evers was bludgeoned” in three known audio interviews, which brings up some troubling questions.

Medgar Evers error on Pg 277 of the hard cover edition

 

More info on the error left in the hard copy edition, Pg 277 can be found here:

http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2011/04/09/medgar-evers-error-in-the-help/

 

 

To my knowledge the error was quietly corrected in the ebook version. But how is it that the error wasn’t caught? Part of the reason comes from the director and screenwriter of the movie himself, Stockett’s good friend Tate Taylor. In an interview he admitted to about.com:

Tate Taylor: “We have a great relationship, Kathryn and I. It could have gone poorly, but when I outlined the movie from the book, we met in New York and I said, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’ There was only one thing she didn’t agree with and she was right.”

Can you say what it was?

Tate Taylor: “I didn’t think we should talk about the Jim Crow Laws because I felt like people know what that is and she told me when she wrote the novel, her editors in New York – highly educated people – had no clue about Jim Crow Laws. I go, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I know, I swear! You think people know. They don’t. So she goes, ‘I’m telling you put it in,’ and I did. I thought, being a Southerner, it was too much. ‘Oh really? Of course there’s Jim Crow Laws.’ That was the one thing.”

http://movies.about.com/od/thehelp/a/tate-taylor-interview.htm

 

 

More info on the how The Help got over, inspite of problems and mindset surrounding the book and the movie can be found here:

http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2011/07/16/the-help-got-over/

 

 

 

So the editors seem to have relied on Stockett’s info to be accurate. Only in the case of how Evers died, Stockett wasn’t. So how could the same author who wrote the prior scenes featuring Minny and Aibileen completely forget Evers had been shot when doing an interview? Because when Stockett speaks of Evers “bludgeoning” in those audio interviews, her speech is earnest, as if she really believes this is how he died.

No, The Help isn’t a history book. But the publisher’s PR played up the historic connotations in the novel. So while Stockett’s original manuscript may have been simply about Skeeter’s relationship with Constantine and Aibileen and the other maids, someone recognized the novel would be incomplete or called on the history it left out.

In a hasty attempt to add it, mistakes were made by the publisher and the author.

By Stockett setting her story in Jackson at the very moment the civil rights movement was at its peak, then making most of the maids and most of the white employers act as if they could come and go as they pleased without being affected, is simply revisionist fiction at its worst.

The boycotts by the local black community shut down white merchants, as well as freedom riders and reporters from liberal national magazines pouring into the city on the minds and the mouths of white citizens who called them “commies” and “trouble makers.” The police were out in force, so Stockett pretending that the very newspaper Skeeter worked for wouldn’t have sent out a reporter, or at the very least have a negative buzz in the newsroom is pure denial.

I’ve included scans from two popular newspapers during the time Stockett sets her novel in. The papers have now been revealed to be pro-segregationist in their views, however they at least give insight on how the real Jackson, Mississippi operated during segregation, as well as the cultural and social norms that prevailed.

More can be found here:

http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/real-housewives-of-jackson/

 

 

 

Pretending the civil rights movement didn’t have as much of a foothold in Jackson and thus would hardly affect the daily comings and goings of not only the maids, but their employers was big error in my opinion (the height of offense comes from the character of Minny speaking ill of church member Shirley Boon’s effort to gather individuals to join in. Minny reads like a fool when she says “I told Shirley Boon her ass was too big to fit on a stool at Woolworth’s”) There’s also an inference that domestics, which included maids weren’t on the forefront of the freedom marches. By attempting to make Skeeter’s book concerning the maids tales either on par, or of greater importance than the very real civil rights movement (which would gain the maids lasting equality), Stockett turns Skeeter into the dreaded “white savior” trope.

The movie attempted to correct some of the errors in the novel, especially with Skeeter’s lack of interest in the racial upheaval of Jackson, which called into question her journalism degree from Ole Miss. As the former editor of her college newspaper, Skeeter would have been part of the crowd blocking James Meredith from entering her Alma Mater, or trying to get students to interview (which in turn would beef up her resume). But I understand why the novel veered from doing this.

Because it was only meant for light entertainment, and not to “stick” with readers. Thus Hilly is an over the top villainess, and appears to be the only resident in Jackson advocating a strict adherence to segregation.

In the novel Skeeter behaved as if she’d just graduated from high school and had no “nose for news” or inquisitive spark which would lead one to believe journalism was the correct major for her (Skeeter graduated with a degree in English and journalism).

Unsubstantiated fictional tale #10

“That’s how it really was back then.”

This goes hand in hand with #9. Whenever the book is called on historical accuracy, then the excuse is that the novel isn’t supposed to be a history lesson. Yet some of these same defenders will claim the book handles the time period faithfully. On the page that lists the book’s publishing information, The Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is listed as:

1. Civil Rights movement – Fiction

2. African American women – Fiction

3. Jackson (Miss)- Fiction

Publication Data sent to Library of Congress

This information comes from the publisher (if it doesn’t I hope someone leaves a comment as to who determines this aside from the publisher)

But with more information coming out regarding errors in the book that could easily have been googled, and the director/screenwriter proclaiming in an interview that the film was “historically accurate” I can see where there could be confusion.

“If you want to see a historically accurate portrayal of life in the sixties, but go behind the door and see the humanity and the love behind these courageous . . . – Tate Taylor, director and screenwriter of The Help

Link: http://www.pegasusnews.com/news/2011/aug/08/interview-director-star-the-help-why-see-movie/

 

 

 

I mentioned the Medgar Evers error in item #9. I’ll point out another error that could have easily been corrected with a simply internet search, since the records are online for the public to view.

Skeeter’s amnesia over James Meredith: 

Skeeter claims to be “neither thrilled nor disappointed by the news that they might let a colored man into Ole Miss, just surprised.” Stockett has the character saying this as she sees James Meredith being blocked from entering Ole Miss on televsion, when records from the real Ole Miss indicate the school’s  student newspaper wrote disparaging articles on Meredith in Feb of 1962. In the novel, Skeeter graduates in May of that same year. As the fictional editor of The Rebel Rouser, Skeeter would have known more than she let on, especially since her major was journalism. And more importantly, James Meredith attempted to legally enroll in the school in 1961. When Skeeter Phelan was a junior.

 

 

Rebel Underground Feb 1962

Scanned Document from The University of Mississippi Libraries: Digital Collections on line The Integration of the University of Mississippi

Link: http://clio.lib.olemiss.edu/cdm4/document.php?CISOROOT=/integration&CISOPTR=100&REC=20

 

 

So when some people make the claim that Stockett captures what really went on back then, it’s important to understand why it gets challenged.

And while it’s true that the novel and the movie attempt to show how badly blacks were treated, its how Stockett believes her African American maids dealt with these events that the author also got wrong. In the novel Aibileen is someone loathing of the skin she’s in. So much so, that she reads as if she lives vicariously through the white children she’s around. There’s even a scene where she drools over Yule May’s hair, stating “Yule May easy to recognize from the back cause she got such good hair, smooth, no nap to it.” (Pg 208).

Aibileen whines about her skin color, feeling the need to compare her complexion to a roach, (“He black, blacker than me”)  and also Connor, Constantine’s absentee lover (“He was black as me”) in yet another stereotypical trope, that of the absentee black male who fathers a child only to leave.

With this type of inner dialogue Stockett appears to assume that blacks would rather be anyone but who we were born. And instead of her primary maid being heroic, Aibileen has a serious inferiority complex that makes her less than admirable. In addition, though the movie changes the reason why the maids decide to help Skeeter with the manuscript (Taylor uses Medgar Evers death as the catalyst instead of Hilly pressing charges against Yule May for stealing), look what Stockett has Aibileen thinking days after Evers murder:

“But after Mr. Evers got shot a week ago, lot a colored folks is frustrated in this town. Especially the younger ones, who ain’t built up a callus to it yet. . .” (Pg 207)

Aibileen’s less than admirable reasoning after Medgar Evers death

This reads more like Aibileen is resigned to it all. She’s speaking as if the youth in her congregation just need time to realize resistance is futile, as she has done. As written, Aibileen’s driving force is simply instilling love in her white charges, and that never changes even while she assists with the maids stories. Yet somehow she ignores Minny’s children, because there’s no scene where she coddles Minny’s youngest daughter Kindra or tries to impart positive affirmations on black youth in addition to Mae Mobley.Minny winds up being even more of a stereotype, an uncouth loud mouth who verbally berates members of her own community, as they attempt to join in with civil rights activities going on in Jackson, Mississippin (items in bold are my doing):

“I told Shirley Boon her ass won’t fit on no stool at Woolworth’s anyway.” (Minny, Pg 217)

And I know there are plenty of other “colored” things I could do besides telling my stories or going to Shirley Boon’s meetings-the mass meetings in town, the marches in Birmingham, the voting rallies upstate. But truth is, I don’t care that much about voting. I don’t care about eating at a counter with white people. What I care about is, if in ten years, a white lady will call my girls dirty and accuse them of stealing silver. Minny (Pg 218)

And why does Stockett have Minny making such stupid statements? Because for whatever reason, Minny apparently can’t hold her tongue when dealing with a character named Shirley Boon. But there’s also another reason. Stockett sets up the maids stories to appear as great or of greater importance than the civil unrest that actually went on in Jackson. Thus Minny distances herself from the community meetings in order to keep her appointments with Skeeter. But there was no need to disparage the very real civil rights activities to do so.

By confining Aibileen and Minny to their respective ”kitchens” and also a singular church, Stockett’s 1960s Jackson is almost idyllic in its lack of racial problems. Hence the only character in danger is Skeeter, since she has to worry about being stopped going to or from Aibileen’s house. However even then there’s no real danger, it’s only implied and never materializes.

This turns the character into a buffoon. And Aibileen and Minny become a female version of Amos ‘n Andy, where Aibileen plays straight man to Minny’s comedic lines. Which then leaves Skeeter as the dreaded “white savior” or basically the only member of this crew thinking straight. Unfortunately, when Kathryn Stockett tried to find a way to insert a white character into the mix of her maids, here’s what she wound up doing:

Note this line in the review posted below. “The colored folks actually saved themselves. Minny and Aibileen, as well as the other colored folks in the community were the real “heroes” of the movie; they just needed someone to push them to their potential (Skeeter)”

Actual review of the movie

Like the novel, the notion that “someone had to push them to their potential” falls back on the stereotype that blacks could do nothing for themselves unless someone white was at the helm.

And it’s also a cringe-worthy reminder when we sought equality. The excuse most often heard was that blacks would gain equality once we “earned” it.

The line “they just needed someone to push them to their potential (Skeeter)” perfectly sums up a major bone of contention about the novel, and may also be what’s controversial about the film. Why? Because far too many people would rather believe a film than real history. Real history shows African Americans (including maids) were tired of being mistreated and maligned, so the fight and burning desire for civil rights grew out of violent and demeaning oppression. It was started by African Americans, for African Americans. It began, not in the 1960s, but when the first African American was bound and shackled centuries ago. The non-violent protests and marches during the height of the civil rights era were called the “FREEDOM MOVEMENT” for a reason.

African Americans wanted to be free, and in 1964 a law was passed to ensure we got it.

And the resulting legislation affected other minority groups, like white women and later amended to add the physically challenged.

 

 

To be continued . . .

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